NEW YORK – Director Thomas Kail had a free night in New York a few days ago and went to see “The Phantom of the Opera” for the first time.
He had a special reason to check out the longest-running show in Broadway history: As the director of “Hamilton,” he might have another history-making musical on his hands.
Kail got onto the empty stage after the show and marveled at how it has managed to keep the magic going. He was inspired by how alive it felt despite 28 years.
“It’s a reminder that this is all possible,” he said. “If you actually make something that has a chance to endure, then my job is to surround myself with the finest team around me to make that possible.”
Kail, 35, is widely expected to win his first Tony Award this month, the culmination of a busy year that has included directing two off-Broadway plays, a triumphant “Grease: Live” for 14.6 million people and transferring that little musical by Lin-Manuel Miranda about Alexander Hamilton to Broadway.
Articulate, smart and genial, Kail, who attended Wesleyan University in Connecticut, likens himself to a traveling salesman who lands in a town and makes art with whatever is handy.
“I go to each job and open my little briefcase up and I take out the things that I have or I know. It might be a Swiss army knife, a quart of milk and a ruler. That might be all I can bring to it, but that’s what I have.”
He has a reputation for directing shows that are accessible to traditional and nontraditional theatergoing audiences alike: “In the Heights,” also by Miranda, introduced salsa flavors and Latin characters to Broadway, while he also attracted sports fans with the plays “Lombardi” and “Magic/Bird.”
“I want to make Broadway a word that doesn’t have pejorative connotation. I don’t want musical theater to be a dismissive term. I want it to be something that people can be proud of, that people can say, ‘Look at the possibilities,’” he said.
“I want to make theater that allows someone who is seeing their first show to sit next to someone who is seeing their 30th show of the season and both feel like it’s for them.”
Miranda deservedly gets credit for writing the story and music for the megahit “Hamilton,” but Kail is the man who picked the people who made it happen onstage.
He chose David Korins to do the scaffolding-and-turntable set, Andy Blankenbuehler for the evocative choreography, Paul Tazewell to do costumes that are historical from the neck down and contemporary from the neck up, Alex Lacamoire for his glorious orchestrations and Howell Binkley for his complex lighting. It’s no coincidence they all got Tony nominations.
“He is so smart. But he also really understands how artists work and how it happens. So much of what it is is to create an environment where we could all feel valued and free to try things and make mistakes and have arguments,” said Korins.
Kail’s philosophy could be described as the best idea wins – after everyone is heard. He knows the team will spend many hours together and prefers nice people to egos. Many of his friends have been frustrated by not being heard during the creative process and he vows to be different.
“Humanity is more important to me than talent. ... if there’s a choice to make, I’ll go humanity over talent every time,” he said.
“One of the greatest compliments anyone could ever give a director is, ‘Everybody was in the same show.’ That’s something I think about constantly.”
Kail this spring stayed busy by directing “Dry Powder” and “Daphne’s Dive “ off Broadway and next on his agenda is making sure he can clone “Hamilton” for audiences far from Broadway. A version is planned for Chicago this fall and another version starts a tour next spring in San Francisco and then Los Angeles.
He said the touring versions will be exactly like the one on Broadway, save for imperceptible changes to accommodate the new theaters’ dimensions.
“It will be the show,” he said. “The task to make it excellent is just as important to us now as it’s ever been.”
Kail vows to never stop hustling, even though he’s got a smash show and is now friendly with people like legendary director Hal Prince. (“We’ll email each other. I’d save them all. He probably doesn’t save his from me,” he said, laughing.)
“With all of the wonderful, crazy things happening, we had two shows yesterday. There’s a show tonight. There’s a show tomorrow,” he said. “That really keeps you focused on what you need to do because you have to make the meal. No one cares at a restaurant that Tuesday night was good when they’re coming in for the lunch seating. We have to go and make the meal.”